Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lookit What I Got in the Mail Today!

[Recommended listening while reading this post: "Teach Your Children" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.]

My friend ronniecat visited Cuba recently, and sent me a souvenir from her trip. When I opened the package, the first thing I saw was the box -- a delightful recipe box with a chicken theme, appropriate for Ft. Harrington. Inside the box was the brown baseball, which ronnie described thusly in her note that accompanied the package:

"... I bought this at a market in Old Havana [...] these had wooden balls at the core [...] when Cubans play 'beisbol,' this is typical of what they're playing with, though this is a step up, as store-bought, from 'I made it myself' balls!"

Unknown to ronnie, after the box, and after the ball, a whole series of memories came tumbling out of the brown paper package:

When I was a little kid in Upstate New York, I loved the game of baseball, and I was enchanted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose games I could hear on the radio. I was a chunky, awkward little kid, though, and wasn't very good at athletic enterprises:

Little League tryouts, spring, 1958. I'm the kid throwing at the target.

When I was 11 years old, I tried out for Little League. I was one of the few kids who didn't make the cut for any team at all. I was crushed. My Dad was inspired.

He built a number of training facilities around our home in the backcountry, including:

Hand-eye coordination wall, 1959

... this "bounce-back" stone wall and flagstone terrace. Its function was to improve my fielding abilities by providing unpredictable ricochets which trained me to react to batted balls quickly (very quickly, since I was to use a tennis ball, not a baseball), and...

Batting cage, 1960

... a batting cage, where he would pitch balls to me from the regulation 60 feet, 6 inches away. He enticed me to learn to switch-hit by having me simulate the Dodgers' (by then in the faraway land of Los Angeles) lineup according to whether the hitter was right- or left-handed.

It became clear pretty soon, though, that hitting wasn't going to be my strength, so we switched to pitching. By 1962, he had trained me to throw accurately enough that I could do pretty well in summer-league competition:

Me pitching for the Norwich Masons against the Sherburne town team, 1962

By then, I was in high school, and the goal was to be a pitcher for the Norwich Purple Tornado. Dad's training went into high gear. My athleticism was still meager, but I was a strong, chunky guy, and Dad knew a thing or two about leverage. In the summer of '62, he had me throw over and over again with a prop that engaged my best assets (ahem), husky thighs and a big butt: a folding chair placed right in front of me. By having to kick my left leg over the back of that chair, I learned to bring maximum force into my pitches, and eventually developed a nasty fastball. Poor Dad, the batter in all this training, developed quite a colorful left side that summer from all the bruises. Velocity, he could train me for -- accuracy, not so much. Unfortunately, I can't find a picture in his slide trove of the infamous chair.

Fireballer in training, 1963

All of his and my efforts paid off in 1964, my Junior year in high school. I made the varsity team, and was their ace starting pitcher for that one season. There is not a single picture of that chapter. Dad couldn't stand to do anything but sit on the back rail of the bleachers while I was pitching, anxiously chewing on his fingernails, and he never brought a camera to any of my games as a varsity pitcher. I did okay, not great, because I still couldn't accurately guide my pitches -- I still hold the league record for hit batsmen in a season (primarily because the league dissolved the next year, but still...), and the Catholic kids who batted against me would cross themselves before every pitch.

The coach was a former minor-league pro player who knew some scouts, and (I think as a favor to my Dad, but I don't know for sure) he brought in a Yankees' scout to watch one of my games. His advice to me after the game was blunt: I could throw balls past high school kids, but there was no way I could ever do well even in the low minors, so I should concentrate on my studies.

So I did. And I never played organized ball again after that season, but I wasn't bitter about it at all. I pretty much knew that was the case, anyway, and Dad and I had already proved that I was better than somebody who couldn't make Little League!

More importantly, Dad and I had worked on something important together, for crucially formative years for each of us, and had accomplished much more than baseball alone could account for.

Veterans' Park, Norwich, New York: the home field of the Norwich Purple Tornado

I took the last picture in the summer of 2001, when I made a pilgrimage back to Chenango county to scatter my parents' ashes in the nearby Whaupaunaucau forest, across Thompson Creek from the little house I grew up in, and its hillside lot where Dad built the batting cage and all the rest. The little grandstand looked bigger when I was playing earnestly there, and you can see the corner rail, high up in the back, where Dad sat and gnawed his fingernails so many years ago.

Thank you, ronnie. Thank you so very, very much.

[Coda: the title of this post is meant to echo the one you can see by clicking here.]


Ronnie said...

Last fall I joined with a few HS class of 1940 friends and the family of Mark Harris to scatter his ashes at our old junior high ballfield. He wrote a bunch of pretty good books, notably The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly, the latter also a movie. His talent was more in the writing and appreciation of it, than in the playing, but oh what memories we all have about that game!

Sherwood Harrington said...

Bang the Drum Slowly is one of my favorite books, Ronnie! This is such a very, very small world in a number of ways, isn't it?

And the game survives, despite everything, doesn't it?

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Holy moly, this is gold medal parenting in too many ways to name! Not accepting defeat. Breaking a problem down into its components and solving them. Innovation. Refining the goal according to the strengths and weaknesses that the process revealed. Believing in you and showing you how to believe in yourself. Sherwood, this entry is way-wonderful.

ronnie said...

Wow, Sherwood - talk about a small gift (the baseball) reaping rewards for the giver far beyond its value (this story)! Thank you for this wonderful post - your father was clearly an outstanding Dad who really understood how to be a Dad. A parent who can, without pressure or negative judgement, take one of those childhood disappointments and turn it gently and patiently into a shared success - that's a rare and wonderful thing.

Ronnie said...

to the original ronnie: where was the kittycat usually with your posts? Now I really will have to adopt another name since this thing refuses to use the capital R I usually do. Oh well, Sherwood already suggested O'Ronnie - kinda hokey - but oh well -

Ronnie said...

So then when I'm not looking, the cat appears. Sorry, folks. I give up.

Brian Fies said...

I keep telling you you're a great writer. Well, there you go. Great story, too, thanks for sharing it.